Guile ultimately gives way to force in predictable but enjoyable 'Diggstown'

August 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Diggstown" is a perfect example of a bad thing done well, or well enough. Derivative and completely predictable, the movie still enjoys being a movie so much that joy is contagious.

Like "The Sting," it's the story of a con, and its pleasures come from watching the amoral scamp at its center choreograph a monstrously big conspiracy that leaves a truly bad man busted flat broke.

What is it that's appealing about a con man? Well, as James Woods, that hyperkinetic live wire, plays him, it's the unflappable sense of command, that utter refusal to rattle, that deep, sure craftiness and aplomb. By the twisted moral physics of the movie universe, we admire the man who's in control rather than )) the man who's in the right. Woods, who seems in all his performances to beam intelligence, is perfect as Gabriel Kane, a professional's professional (in prison, he sells escapes). The scam revolves around removing the millions from a nasty boxing promoter in a small Southern burg called Diggstown. It seems that in Diggstown, sleazy and sanctimonious John Gillon (Bruce Dern) has been promoting boxing matches for years in the town arena, merrily raking in a fortune not only in pots (he takes most) but in side bets.

The setup: Advance man Oliver Platt swaggers into town and swindles the local yokels blind in pool and cards, irking them to no end; he then claims he's got a man who could beat 10 local boys in a day. When he doesn't seem to have the scratch to make it worth anybody's time, Woods just "innocently" pipes up and agrees to back him, and the stakes, in a few hot minutes, rise dizzily.

Of course the Platt-Woods team really does have a super fighter stowed away; they just haven't told him.

This is Honey Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett Jr.), once a ranking contender who never got a title chance because he wouldn't cooperate with the mob. But he is stone tough, can take a shot and throw one in the same split second. It just happens that, now 48, he's retired and is a boxing coach in Huston. So Woods' first con is to con the old guy back into the ring.

"Diggstown" is at its best in its early going. Director Michael Ritchie has a true gift of place, and he manages to make this Southern town both specific and resonant. And a great deal of energy is generated by the corpulent, lip-smackingly self-loving Platt, who winds the good old boys around his finger with true sporting genius.

By its last third, the movie has degenerated into non-stop pugilism and melodramatics. A subplot in which Dern masterminds the murder of a failed black boxer is nothing more than a despicable attempt to exploit racial animosity for a few extra bucks. And the tub-thumping, fist-blasting excess of the climax wears thin; it would have been better if scriptwriter Steven McKay had come up with an end game that didn't depend so much on raw force as on raw guile.

'Diggstown'

Starring James Woods and Louis Gossett Jr.

Directed by Michael Ritchie.

Released by MGM.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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